Creating digital infrastructure is essential, but why is no one measuring the results?
Digitization is good for individuals and societies around the globe. It is lifting people out of poverty and bolstering economies. That is gospel.
But what if it is wrong? Or, more likely, what if that truism is only partially right? There is no way to know today.
To the extent that governments, non-governmental organizations and businesses invest in providing the digital stack of payments, ID and data exchange systems, no one knows if infrastructure projects are being designed, implemented and governed for the public good.
A new report, by researchers from the liberal-leaning think tank Brookings Institution and Digital Impact Alliance, a United Nations Foundation think tank, challenges the community to define good digital infrastructure for greater accountability.
Metrics used to analyze efforts and outcomes here are fragmented and inconsistent, according to the report’s authors. They are also predominantly measuring availability and use of systems when they should include systems impact.
For example, it is possible to roughly count the people who have digital IDs. Without them, many people are shut out of private transactions and cannot collect on social programs and services such as vaccines.
But do digital IDs really give new energy to critical services? And are they used for unnecessary surveillance by governments and businesses? That is a harder question to answer.
At the same time, funding and project management templates are being applied that are outdated, according to the report. And what standards exist are inexact for the task — going beyond infrastructure availability to societal impact.
Attempts to understand the effects of digital infrastructure programs have been made, such as a set of insights into the impact of digital public goods and infrastructure intended for national economic development offered by a MOSIP executive last month.
The Brookings report authors have proposed a framework that would help insiders and observers judge the process, starting with infrastructure design, implementation and governance. It goes on to propose a similar process for services — scale, user experience and outcomes and impacts.
A chart in the report highlights facets that already have good indicators, like data protections and resulting entrepreneurship. But there are more misses than there are hits.
The question now is whether this idea can take off among the global data-resource construction sector.